Clinical empathy as emotional labor in the patient-physician relationship

JAMA. 2005 Mar 2;293(9):1100-6. doi: 10.1001/jama.293.9.1100.


Empathy should characterize all health care professions. Despite advancement in medical technology, the healing relationship between physicians and patients remains essential to quality care. We propose that physicians consider empathy as emotional labor (ie, management of experienced and displayed emotions to present a certain image). Since the publication of Hochschild's The Managed Heart in 1983, researchers in management and organization behavior have been studying emotional labor by service workers, such as flight attendants and bill collectors. In this article, we focus on physicians as professionals who are expected to be empathic caregivers. They engage in such emotional labor through deep acting (ie, generating empathy-consistent emotional and cognitive reactions before and during empathic interactions with the patient, similar to the method-acting tradition used by some stage and screen actors), surface acting (ie, forging empathic behaviors toward the patient, absent of consistent emotional and cognitive reactions), or both. Although deep acting is preferred, physicians may rely on surface acting when immediate emotional and cognitive understanding of patients is impossible. Overall, we contend that physicians are more effective healers--and enjoy more professional satisfaction--when they engage in the process of empathy. We urge physicians first to recognize that their work has an element of emotional labor and, second, to consciously practice deep and surface acting to empathize with their patients. Medical students and residents can benefit from long-term regular training that includes conscious efforts to develop their empathic abilities. This will be valuable for both physicians and patients facing the increasingly fragmented and technological world of modern medicine.

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Physician's Role*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*